Marketers, beware those who gaze into the future

Marketers need to ask more searching questions of self-styled futurologists.

Taking a cold, critical look at trends analysis feels a bit like clubbing a seal. Trends presentations were always the fun bit of a marketer’s toil, a once-a-year visit to the beard-and-earring side of town to hear about what everyone would be doing next. Trend predictors were the innocents standing there on the rock of today, peering at the skies of tomorrow, and daring to venture their certainties, either oblivious or uncaring of the fact that the passage of time would brutally expose most of them as fanciful, daft or plain wrong. 

They gave their trends playful names – Welebrity, EVEolution, Point & Know – and marketers would duly pick these up and use them to leaven their own presentations. Campaign and other industry organs would launch into every new year with a feature headed "Six new trends that will shape marketing in 20…", in the full knowledge that no-one would remember what they were by year’s end and demand their money back when five never got off the ground. 

Critiquing the predictions – probing sources, weighing sample sizes, demanding probability metrics – would be like taking seriously those magazine articles that assess your personality by getting you to tick a), b) or c) answers to a bunch of breezy questions: any kernel of truth was wrapped in an outer layer of frivolity and was never intended to survive the scrutiny of the evidence-based zealots. 

But enough. The "discipline" is beginning to take itself very seriously indeed and the innocence is long gone. Today’s trend companies describe themselves loftily as "futurologists" or "envisioners" and the playfulness has been replaced by heavy pseudo-social-science. From one presentation recently, I learned that we are in for a time of "synesthetic immersion". From another, that "identity mixology" and "essentialism" were fast coming our way. 

Emulating their cousins in qualitative research, these businesses go beyond reporting to directing – telling brands how to navigate their future. Marketers, for their part, have begun treating the predictions with increasing seriousness and allocating budgets to match.

The time has come to ask more searching questions of the predictors (such as "What is your evidence?") and of ourselves too (like "What do we hope to gain from this?"). 

Let’s start right there – with us. If the aim is to understand where consumers may be heading, in order to stay in front of rival brands, we have to accept that competitors will have access to the same data too. That means doing the work to interpret the trend – always assuming we believe it’s valid – to make it uniquely relevant to our consumer base. 

That’s never easy, but is made tougher if our consumers are slap in the middle of the mass market and the trend has started on the fringes. Where was it first observed? If it was in Meatpacking District, Manhattan, what happens when it reaches Gary, Indiana? And how has it been illustrated? If it’s a trend to "holistic balance", it might be depicted by "açaí and hemp" bowls in Hoxton, but what would the equivalent be in Hartlepool? 

And who’s doing the observing anyway? Trend agencies – sorry, futurologists – tend to employ "streetscapers" in different parts of the world to note what’s happening around them and try to make sense of why. But how many, in which places, with what qualifications, to what brief, is not made clear. So it’s time to ask – because it’s their judgments we’re often reading on those PowerPoint charts and viewing in those artisan, street video clips.

We should also probe more deeply into the sober-looking graphs and tables that are increasingly populating the reports, lending them a quantitative authority. That means asking the questions you’d normally want answered when reviewing research – but which rarely get asked this context. Principally, "What is the source?" While these are occasionally quoted – often some kind of branded "Global Study" – the size of the sample, its make-up and methodologies tend to be absent and not readily forthcoming.  

I think we can be happy with the extremes. Trends agencies with a bit of flair and some good connections telling us that "X is the new Y" and pitching it all as a bit of light input that might help us think more openly. 

Or futurology "institutes" (they love that word too) whose predictions we are expected to take with greater seriousness, and reward with greater fees, because they result from robust, statistically significant research and expert, informed analysis. 

What we can’t have is the former pretending it’s the latter. That would be like the seal clubbing us.

Trendspotters

Faith Popcorn
Ex-advertising creative and doyenne of the discipline, who launched her BrainReserve consultancy in 1974 and has been coining catchy terms for cultural trends ever since. "Cocooning" was one of her most famous – the urge to stay at home and invest time and energy in our nests, anticipating a surge in home-delivered food.

Kantar Futures
Part of WPP, and the result of an amalgamation of a group of research companies including The Henley Centre and Yankelovich, Kantar Futures claims "unparalleled global expertise in foresights, trends and futures". Its most recent FutureView webinar reported that fear of stagnation is "on the mind of every consumer" and that consumers are "recoiling or revolting" against no change.

Foresight Factory
The new name for The Future Foundation, which has been around since 1996 and claims to help clients "own the future" through a combination of "data-science and creativity". It relies on the help of its 500 "connected citizens" in 80 countries (think about it, that’s about six people per country) who it claims are able to recognise and articulate change.

Helen Edwards is the former PPA busi­ness columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passion­brand. 
@helenedw

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